Friday, 12 April 2013

First experience of a flipped learning approach

Bryan McCabe is a lecturer in Civil Engineering at NUI Galway, and a winner of a President's Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011/12. About a year ago, Bryan was considering how he might use a flipped approach in his teaching and began planning such an approach for his 3rd year undergraduate course in Soil Mechanics, to be delivered starting January 2013. Bryan had a number of conversations with us in CELT during the year and we were keen to find out how his initiative had worked out. So, we invited him to give a CELT lunchtime seminar on March 21st.

In advance of the seminar, Bryan was keen to point out that this was his first experience with flipped learning and he could only talk about initial findings. He didn't want to be perceived as an expert in the area, but was willing to share his experiences and thoughts. The seminar abstract is:

First experience of a flipped learning approach to a 3rd year Engineering module

Flipped learning is a form of blended learning in which technology is used to make course content available outside the classroom, freeing up valuable classroom time for active problem solving and learning. In his presentation, Bryan McCabe will talk about his first attempt this semester at flipping his 3rd year (3 ECTS) Soil Mechanics module in Civil Engineering. The presentation will cover the production of short videos covering the basic module content and the active workshop approach adopted in the classroom. The response of students to the new experience has been captured by survey both early in the semester and at the end and these are discussed. Bryan will reflect upon what aspects of the approach have worked well and what areas need be to improved, in addition to the pros and cons from the lecturer's perspective.

The following narrative is based on Bryan's fascinating talk.


The flipped model of teaching turns the traditional model - content introduced in the classroom and students learn through assignments and self-study outside the classroom - on its head. Students review basic content in advance of the classroom session, often made available through technology (videos, podcasts etc), and the classroom time is used for learning through doing - interactive workshops.

For more information on flipped learning, Bryan references the excellent Flipped Classroom Infograph, although the concept of flipped learning has been around for much longer than this infograph suggests. He also made reference to Julie Schell's acronym as described in her blog post How to FLIP your class ... in 4 basic steps.

Julie's Peer Instruction blog, Turn to Your Neighbour, is an excellent source of resources on the flipped classroom and peer learning in general.

The Soil Mechanics Module

The course that Bryan decided to flip is a third year engineering module, comprising 24 lecture hours over 8 weeks. It is taken (in 2013) by 64 students, from 4 different programmes. It is assessed using quizzes on Blackboard (20%) and a final written exam (80%).

Back in January, Bryan prepared the students for flipped learning using the Educause 7 Things You Should Know About Flipped Classrooms (pdf document, February 2012). He also issued a number of strong statements to students:

This change has major implications for how you should approach this module and gives you more responsibility for your learning, with potential for greater rewards as a result.

It should be noted that looking at the video clips alone or attending the classroom sessions without having looked at the video clips are strategies that are unlikely to serve you well in this module.

Flipping the Module

Based largely on existing materials, Bryan produced 15 narrated Powerpoints using Camtasia, covering core concepts, and uploaded these to and YouTube. The total duration over the 15 videos was just 2 hours (distilled down from 24 lectures). Here's a sample video on Groundwater, Permeability and Seepage, demonstrating Bryan's approach:

Students were invited to ask questions about video content by email, twitter (@geotechNUIG) or at the start of class. In fact, none of these communication channels worked particularly well, and questions were normally prompted by the classroom problems. In hindsight, Bryan suggests that he might make better use of the Blackboard threaded discussion boards, which are available to all and visible to the entire group.

In the classroom session, Bryan did not summarise the videos, in case students might rely on such a summary. Instead, the students worked through a set of 17 soil mechanics problems, available in advance in a workbook. The problems were complex, requiring application and synthesis of the content provided in the videos. The problems were solved by the students, with prompts from the lecturer as required. Discussion of challenging or difficult topics, as identified by the students, were encouraged. Bryan reports some evidence of peer learning during these discussions.

On average, engagement was good; although Bryan admits to some slow days.

Six of the 15 videos produced are openly available on YouTube, and are being accessed in several countries. A second year civil engineering student in the UK has recently contacted Bryan, saying that he found the videos useful and could he produce more.

What the Students Thought

Bryan surveyed the students at the end of week 3 and again at the end of week 8. The results from the first survey were very positive, while those from week 8 were yet to be fully analysed at the time of the seminar.

The week 3 survey had 38 respondents (from a total of 64 students). Of those 80% reported that they watched the videos on a personal laptop or home pc rather than a mobile device or campus pc. They had not experienced flipped learning before.

80% of respondents said that watching the videos in their own time was either convenient or very convenient. Only 14% claimed not to have watched the videos in advance of the classroom sessions. Almost 90% found the classroom sessions more valuable or much more valuable than traditional lectures (see diagram). Further, 90% of students were comfortable or very comfortable with the environment of the problem solving sessions.

When asked about the flipped learning approach, two thirds of respondents identified the combination of videos and classroom sessions as being important.

The initial results were very positive and encouraged Bryan to continue with the approach.

An initial analysis of the week 8 survey results showed that just 24 students had responded to the survey at the time of the seminar. Engagement with the videos was poorer than indicated in week 3, but the effectiveness of the classroom sessions and the likelihood of attending the classrooms sessions had increased.

Bryan also asked the students how they would like to be assessed using free text responses (he had deliberately not changed the assessment method of the module from previous years). Students asked for more continuous assessment: short quizzes on video content during class, in-class tests and in-class exams.

Some sample responses are:

I think having some tests in class throughout the semester would be good. The online quizzes are good but I think tests in class would be better because it gives incentive to learn and revise the material as a whole, instead of just answering specific questions

Probably earn continuous assessment points as you go through the year by doing more in class exams this would make the videos compulsory to have viewed before every class

This feedback from students will inform changes in assessment for next year.

Bryan has now started to analyse the exam results from this year's group of students. Not surprisingly, exam performance is better for those who attended more classroom sessions - but with a lot of scatter!

What the lecturer thought

Bryan enjoyed the fact that there was less "delivery" going on and he described getting a "buzz" from the classroom sessions - not knowing where it might go or what he might be asked. He also felt that he added more value to the classroom sessions by being able to provide specialist technical knowledge as well as being able to focus on those areas that were more challenging or where misunderstandings were evident.

The videos themselves were time-consuming to make, but he now has a reusable (and shareable) resource. Next year he can put his efforts into rethinking assessment. There were also challenges around the existing timetable, with the scheduled hours being bunched and not conducive to the problem solving activities he wanted to promote.

Bryan's final words were "There's no going back".


I'd like to thank Bryan for sharing his initial experiences during the lunchtime seminar and for giving me permission to write up this post, linking to his YouTube videos.

I'd also like to thank Julie Schell for her permission to use her diagram within the post.


Julie Schell said...

Fantastic post, so important to have proof of concept cases for other teachers to follow. Thanks so much for posting this!

Sharon Flynn said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks so much, we appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

We are still learning, but it's great to have people like Bryan who are eager to try new things and evaluate the outcomes.


Rafael said...

Very nice post. I particularly liked the way you described in some detail what was carried out in the classroom. I usually read about class flipping but I always keep wondering if the teacher drops the exams and how he or she conducts the actual session. Thanks for sharing

Sharon Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment Rafael. Good to know that you found it useful.

Amelie said...

This is cool!

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melanie thorley said...

good day to you all. I am just about to embark on utilising flipped classrooms and know only small fragments of information about the approach. this article was really useful, especially the feedback from the students. thanks for taking the time to share

Sharon Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment Melanie. Great to hear that you found it useful.